All of a sudden you need a lawyer. So you ask around among your friends. But if you don’t know anyone with barrister connections, how do you find a good lawyer? Look in the yellow pages?

To get answers, we went to a retired judge (William A. Dreier, now a mediator with Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, a Somerville-based firm) and to the president of the Mercer County Bar Association (Craig J. Hubert, former county prosecutor, now with Szaferman Lakind et al).

Plucking your choice from the phone book could leave you high and dry, says Hubert. Suppose the name you choose – the one with the big ad or television commercial – makes a terrible error that costs you money. You could try to beat the attorney at his own game – by suing him to collect that money. But even if you win and that practice does not have adequate malpractice insurance, you still could be left high and dry.

"For people who are overwhelmed by yellow pages advertising, the county referral services offer some guidance and assurance that the lawyer has had some experience and has adequate malpractice insurance," says Hubert.

The state bar association, which gets 1,000 inquiries a week, refers all callers to the county bar associations. Its website (www.njsba.com) also provides links to the county groups, including the Middlesex County Bar Association (732-828-3433, www.mcbalaw.com), Mercer County Bar Association (609-585-6200, www.mercerbar.com), and Somerset County Bar Association (908-685-2323, www.somersetbar.com). Look for the imprimatur of the American Bar Association, which has standards for referral services.

If you call the Middlesex County Bar Association, you are entitled to a 30-minute consultation for $35. When you explain your problem, a staff person searches the database for the appropriate type of lawyer. You will be given the names of those who have paid a fee to be listed in that database. The attorneys’ names come up on a rotating basis.

In Middlesex it costs from $100 to $150 for a county bar member to be listed on the service. The fees differ according to experience, says Jonathan P. Cowles, executive director of the association. Younger lawyers pay the minimum $100 fee, which entitles them to be listed in six practice areas. The Middlesex association also has on file a list of lawyers who agree to charge no more than $60 per hour to income-qualified clients.

At the Somerset County Bar Association, the consultation is $50, and the attorneys pay $250 to be listed on the service. Here, the names are all posted on the website.

At the Mercer County Bar Association, those who use the referral service get the 30-minute consultation for only $25. "The amount the lawyer pays to be listed," says Hubert, "serves to defray the bar association’s administrative costs. Questions are asked about how many times you have been in court, and how many matters similar to that particular subspecialty you have handled in the past year. Proof is checked at least annually of current malpractice insurance, so that in the event you are referred to someone who commits a professional error, you have recourse."

Two commercial referral services, Super Lawyers and Best Lawyers in America, offer peer-reviewed selections.

For the Super Lawyer list, compiled by the research staff at Law & Politics magazine, ballots were sent to more than 35,000 attorneys, who were supposed to evaluate lawyers they had personally observed. Their votes were weighted (votes for someone in another firm counted more) and the nominee list was checked to be sure all were lawyers in good standing.

The semi-final list was grouped into more than 60 practice areas. Those with the highest point totals had an opportunity to serve on the final selection panel, which reviewed and scored the nominees from their primary practice area.

The resulting Super Lawyer list, subgrouped by the size of firm and location, was printed as an 85-page advertorial feature in New Jersey Monthly’s May issue and is included on its free website (www.superlawyers.com); it lists a total of 1,460 attorneys throughout the state; about 75 are based in Princeton.

Another peer-review service, Best Lawyers in America, is a national service based in Aiken, South Carolina, and it has a book and a subscription website (www.bestlawyers.com). To access the complete list on its website requires a $100 annual subscription, but anyone can see one name per specialty and location. The list will be published in New York magazine in August.

Dreier is on both the Super and Best lists, though he prefers the latter. "Am I happy to be on those lists, yes," says Dreier. "Do I really believe them, not really. If you have no other way of telling what’s a good lawyer, you can use them."

Don’t look for the bold type in any listing, he notes, because that just indicates the attorney’s firm paid extra money. "It doesn’t really indicate how good the lawyer is."

By the end of this year another subscription list, Marquis’ Who’s Who in American Law, will have its database online (www.marquiswhoswho.com). Currently 53 attorneys in that book listPrinceton as their home or work address.

Another way to seek counsel could be to use a database of certified attorneys (609-984-3077, www.njbac.org). The daunting certification process, administered by the New Jersey Supreme Court, requires that the attorney providedetails of at least 30 trials over the last five years. "You have to expect that they will call the opposing attorneys and the judges and ask about your trial skills," says Hubert, who has both civil trial and criminal trial certifications. More recently, he says, certifications have been established for matrimonial attorneys and for workers compensation law.

"Attorneys aren’t going through the certification process to achieve business," says Hubert. "Certification is a way to identify yourself as someone who tries cases. When you are dealing with a certified attorney, you have an expectation that the attorney will be prepared to try a case, and able to try the case, and is going to do a formidable job." Currently 141 attorneys from Mercer County are certified in one or more of the four categories.

Just because someone isn’t certified doesn’t mean they aren’t any good. "I know many top trial lawyers who have excellent reputations and have more work than they can handle anyway," Dreier says. "But with the certification lists, a member of the public can at least find someone who has gone through the examination process."

Another distinction that could influence your choice is whether the attorney has argued a case before the New Jersey Supreme Court. Of course, just because the attorney has never had to appeal a case as far as the Supreme Court doesn’t mean he isn’t any good, but, as Huber says, "it’s a fantastic legal experience."

Dreier weighs the pros and cons of choosing a small firm versus a large one. He has worked in a small firm (with three to five attorneys) and now he is in a medium-sized firm (with 90 attorneys), and he has had 25 years of observing attorney/client relationships from the bench.

"If you really can’t afford the big firms, talk to different level firms until you find someone you can afford," says Dreier. "You may have to sacrifice networking and experience."

Another way to save money, Dreier says, is to choose a younger lawyer in a large firm. The younger associate has a lower rate and could tap an experienced partner for backup.

A small or boutique practice can have experts as knowledgeable as those in the larger firms. If you need legal help in just one area, such as intellectual property, immigration, or tax law, the boutique firm may do just fine.

But, Dreier suggests, factor into your decision whether you want all your work handled by one firm. If one problem could escalate into other areas – contract law, liability, or labor problems – you may want to keep your work under one roof.

"When I was with a firm of from three to five attorneys, we had to farm out a lot of work outside our expertise," he says. "Sometimes small firms reach above what they can do in order to get the clients."

Both medium-sized and big firms, Dreier notes, have a partner available for any specialty. An advantage of the medium-sized firm is the personal contact between partners. "Our firm has 90 attorneys, and I know them all and what they are good at. When you get to firms that have hundreds or thousands of attorneys, you might lose that knowledge of what their real expertise is."

Large firms offer a certain guarantee of quality. "No one will be kept in the larger firms unless they perform well," says Dreier. "They are very proud of their reputations."

An impressively easy (and free) way to find an attorney is through the New Jersey-based Martindale-Hubbell, which is part of LexisNexis.

Search the consumer-oriented site (www.lawyers.com) by location and type of legal problem, and you will get a list of firms or attorneys. As in the other services, attorneys get basic listings free, and complete biographical details cost more.

You can even state your problem, your payment preference (by the hour? retainer? flat fee?) and let the competing attorneys get back to you. When we plugged in a problem with discrimination and the Princeton zip code, we were told that 10 attorneys might be interested in our problem and might be getting back to us. (They paid a fee for that privilege.)

Check to see if a particular lawyer has been rated by his peers at Martindale-Hubbell’s professional site (www.martindale.com). The ratings grade the lawyer according to his or her experience, and ethical values.

Caution: just because a lawyer doesn’t have a rating doesn’t mean he isn’t any good. It could merely mean that not enough people returned the questionnaires on him, or that he never requested a rating.

-Barbara Fox

For Legal Staffers

Family law cases can be fraught with emotion, and the people who bear the brunt of this emotion most often are the staffers at a law office – those who answer the telephone and do the paralegal chores.

Two attorneys (Catherine Fitzpatrick, a solo practitioner, and Maria Imbalzano of Stark & Stark) and two paralegals (Edith Bryan of Szaferman Lakind and Janice Recca, a freelancer) will offer tips at a seminar on Monday, June 13, at noon at Antonio’s Restaurant, 71 West Upper Ferry Road in West Trenton.

This "Lunch & Learn" program is sponsored by the Mercer County Bar Association’s Lunch & Learn Programs. Cost: $40 including materials and lunch. Call 609-585-6200.

Entitled "All in the Family: the Legal Staff’s Guide to Family Law Practice," the two-hour session will include up-to-date court rules and forms, tips on how to calculate child support and manage case files, and offer effective ways to work with divorce clients.

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